Sitting on the couch, in a well-appointed, freshly painted apartment, Rinal Martin scans his surroundings.
“This is home,” Martin said, “but it’s more than a home to me. It’s security.”
A longtime teacher in public and private schools and a former Job Corps supervisor in Florida, Louisiana and Massachusetts, Martin was disabled by a heart attack and stroke six years ago that left him without a salary and forced him to live on disability and with relatives a few months at a time, despite his advanced degrees.
Now Martin is home – in his home – at the recently opened Gulf Coast Housing Partnership (GCHP) Delamore Apartments, a development located a mile from New Orleans’ famed French Quarter. The Delamore Apartments opened on Aug. 29, on the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, with 26 one-bedroom rental units to provide affordable housing.
The units are available to tenants on the lowest income scale, with monthly rents ranging to a maximum of $591, depending on income. To qualify, applicant tenants are subject to a criminal record report and only those meeting a positive background check are accepted as rental residents.
“Response has been overwhelming,” said Dwanda Lewis, manager of The Delamore. “We filled up here immediately and still have 150 on the waiting list.”
The Delamore was renovated in a location familiar to New Orleans’ residents. The back wall was once part of the Katherine Benson Clinic while the front was part of The Famous Theater, built in 1913, once the city’s premier African American entertainment venue. Yet the building The Delamore replaced was vacant for nearly 30 years.
With gated access and modern amenities, The Delamore development provides a homecoming for many residents, including Martin. He grew up just six miles away in Pontchartrain Park, a post-World War II development that was one of the first middle-class minority suburbs in the area.
“Being able to live in an area that’s protected is a great feeling,” Martin said. “Living here means security, it means comfort and it means availability to the downtown shopping areas.”
The Delamore is one of two ongoing affordable housing developments in Greater New Orleans for the GCHP. Currently under construction, GCHP is transforming the former Bethany Nursing Home, vacant since Hurricane Katrina, into high quality affordable rental housing. The Esplanade site, when completed, will consist of 40 one bedroom apartments, constructed to market rate standards yet responsive to local affordable housing needs.
Kathy Laborde, President and CEO of GCHP, like many of the city’s residents, knows the frustrations of being homeless. Her family had to be evacuated during Katrina and ended up staying with 70 relatives out of state until it was safe to return.
“There were so many homeless people after Katrina,” Laborde said. “There were so many questions. How could we get home safe? Where was my child going to school? How will I pay the bills? Where will we live?”
Laborde remembers cleaning out her real estate office, cluttered with storm remnants and over-run by cockroaches, when she got a phone call asking what she would do to help others. The result: Gulf Coast Housing Partnership, which operates in Louisiana and Mississippi and recently closed its first transaction in Alabama.
Laborde isn’t one for sentimental platitudes. Instead, she sees a goal and sets her sights on reaching the goal quickly. “Having a heart is great,” she said, “but having the pocketbook to solve the problem is the key.”
When funding for The Delamore and Esplanade developments reached a late snag, GCHP turned to Regions Bank for help on the $12.8 million effort.
Mike Scott, the bank’s regional Community Affairs manager in New Orleans, had worked with Laborde and GCHP before. He quickly realized that funding these efforts would be more difficult due to their nature, the deadline and the amount of money needed.
“Kathy does a great job as a developer,” Scott said. “When she called saying she needed grant money, we saw the opportunity to make life better for people. First, though, we had to dig down and be creative about financing.”
It meant reaching out to David Payne, a Regions relationship manager in Jackson, Miss., for additional ideas and help.
“Every project we do helps provide housing for low- to moderate-income families,” Payne said. “These are special, because you are providing money to much lower income levels than you normally would see.”
The fruits of a sparkling new building can be seen easily at The Delamore. One has to have more of an imagination to see the potential at Esplanade. The property is enclosed by a fence that’s been up since Katrina, and the interior of the building that hasn’t yet been rehabbed shows the scars of the storm’s aftermath.
“This building has been completely vacant since Katrina,” Payne said. “A year from now, this could be filled with families, people who need quality housing in an urban area where, frankly, affordable housing is hard to find.”
Yes, it’s about business for any bank, including Regions, but the rewards that projects such as The Delamore and Esplanade offer can be seen in the faces of tenants like Rinal Martin and in the smile of bankers like Mike Scott and David Payne.
“Sometimes, there’s a stigma attached with affordable housing,” Scott said, “but these apartments are well done. Tenants go through a vigorous screening process. These people are rebuilding their lives, and they just need a place to live that’s safe. And, projects such as The Delamore and Esplanade tend to add value to the entire neighborhood.
“Just thinking of that potential, I’m excited,” Scott added. “When you do a deal like this and know what it means for the community, when you drive by and see people who’ve made it home, it makes you feel that you’ve accomplished something.”